Beware Scientific Metaphors

I’m about a quarter finished with Isabel Paterson’s The God of the Machine, which I’m finally reading after several years of intending to. So far, it’s been both pleasurable and interesting. My main reservation, however, has been an extended metaphor which both illustrates the central idea and potentially undermines it.

Paterson develops a notion of energy to describe the synthesis of material resources, cultural virtue, and human capital which results in creativity and production. As metaphors go, this is not a bad one. That said, my engineering background gives me cause for concern. It isn’t clear that Paterson has a clear understanding of energy as a scientific concept, and her analogy may suffer for it. Complicating matters, she sometimes also phrases “energy” as if it were electricity, which is another can of worms in and of itself.

Mechanical energy behaves oddly enough for human purposes, being generally conserved between gravitational potential and kinetic energy, and dissipated through friction and heating. It emphatically does not spring ex-nihilo into cars and trains. Coal and oil have chemical potential energy, which is released as thermal energy, then converted into kinetic energy and thus motion to drive an internal combustion engine.

Electrical energy is even weirder. It’s been enough years since I finished my physics that I won’t attempt to explain the workings in detail. (My electronics class this spring bypassed scientific basis almost entirely.) Suffice to say that the analogy of water moving through a pipe is not adequate beyond the basics.

Atomic energy, the most potent source yet harnessed, does create energy, but at a cost. A nuclear generating station physically destroys a small part of a uranium atom, converting it via Einstein’s famous relation to useful energy. But more on that in later posts.

I won’t say that the “energy” metaphor is strictly-speaking wrong, because I haven’t done the work of dissecting it in detail. Paterson was a journalist and writer, but she was also self-educated, and therefore we cannot easily assess the scope and accuracy of her knowledge of such phenomena. But I don’t think it matters: even if the metaphor is faulty, the concept which it tries to communicate seems, on the face, quite plausible without grounding in the physical sciences.

I bring this up now, well before I’ve finished the book, because I’ve seen much worse analogies from writers with much less excuse to make them. The God of the Machine was published in 1943. Authors today have a cornucopia of factual knowledge at their fingertips and still screw it up. For instance, take this caption from my statics textbook:


Hibbeler, R. C., Engineering Mechanics: Statics & Dynamics, 14th ed., Pearson Prentice Hall, Hoboken, 2016.


There is no excuse for a tenured professor (or, more plausibly, his graduate students) to screw this up. The correct equation is on that very page and they couldn’t even be bothered to run the numbers and see that, no, you’re not significantly lighter in low Earth orbit. From my perspective, such a blatant error is unconscionable in the opening pages of a professional text.

Now that isn’t exactly a metaphor, but it illustrates the risks of discussing fields nominally close to your own which nevertheless you know very little about. Imagine the danger of using metaphors from totally different fields you’ve never formally studied.

So, I would advise writers to be sparing with scientific metaphors. If you can learn the science correctly, that’s great: you’ll construct metaphors that are both interesting and accurate. But as we’ve seen above, even PhDs make stupid mistakes. Err on the side of caution.

Book Review: All The Birds In The Sky

[Note: I read this book on the recommendation of my now ex-girlfriend, and I can confidently say that that affected my reaction to the novel. Consider that as you will.]

I have mixed feelings about this one.

On the positive side, the writing is pretty good. I was sufficiently engaged to keep reading, even when I wanted to sit down the characters and lecture them about their life choices. For the most part, the plot was coherent and didn’t tend to lose me.

But those characters. My opinion of them turned negative in the first few chapters and never really recovered. Once the plot got rolling my feelings ended up relatively neutral, which is….less than one would hope for, given such explicit protagonists. The building action felt kind of drawn out, so this non-negative period was somewhat protracted.

One could justify such extended exposition in the service of extensive worldbuilding, but we don’t really get that. I spent a good part of the book wondering about the details of the disasters unfolding out-of-frame and the magical world Patricia disappeared into. We get a pseudo-explanation of the latter in the final chapter, but the resolution felt pretty forced and didn’t clear up very many loose ends. The denouement was about two pages.

Maybe there’s going to be a sequel that explores these things further. The book only came out this year, so who knows.

However, this frustration helped me realize something about myself: the reason I can’t write fiction is that I’m far more interested in building up a world than any story that could be set within it. Maybe I should team up with a plotmeister who wants to break into sci-fi. Contact me if you’re interested.

At this point it should be clear, dear reader, that I’m not exactly qualified to comment on the writing of science fiction novels, but in the spirit of the characters, I’m going to offer some recommendations anyway.

Firstly, if major plot issues could be resolved by better communication between the characters, it’s nice to give readers a reason why the characters aren’t having those much-needed conversations. Yes, it is possible that no one thinks to ask. But our protagonists are a genius and a literal witch (whose main character flaw is caring too much). I have questions if nothing else. Like, maybe I’m unusually inquisitive but Laurence seemed strangely accepting that actual for-real magic has suddenly appeared in his life.

Speaking of magic, there was a weird theme of techies-can’t-into-ethics running through the book which doesn’t really make sense in context (the book, or the real world). At one point, Patricia is chastising Laurence’s worldview for thinking that saving humanity is more important than saving the entire biosphere, a mere stretch goal for the story’s counterfactual SpaceX.

Patricia, you can talk to animals. You can heal HIV with a single touch. You can cut deals with space-time itself. Ordinary humans are playing an entirely different game.

This gets back into the communication thing. Convinced a team of mad scientists prodigious engineers are about to destroy the world? Have you tried talking to them about the risks involved?

Not that tech-types are liable to destroy the world, seeing as they’re some of the only people I’m aware of with any serious interest in solving morality, out of concerns that an artificial intelligence needs a coherent ethical system before we turn it on. Nick Bostrom calls this problem philosophy with a deadline. You can dismiss this claim if you want, I can’t stop you, but when one of the characters is an AI, then it’s, well, weird.

To be fair, it was awakened to consciousness and gets a lot of early training from Patricia, so talking to witches might be a good AI safety strategy. Shame MIRI can’t try that.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, YA near-future apocalyptic meets urban fantasy novel. Does it count as Young Adult when there’s a moderately explicit sex scene? I don’t remember if they covered that at WorldCon.

My final recommendation has to do with character development. Namely, if you go through great lengths to make a villain sympathetic, do give them some sort of redemption arc. We’re given a front-row seat to a cold-blooded assassin developing a conscience in the halls of an unsettlingly exaggerated portrayal of middle-school misery, and then—anti-climax. His scheme is foiled and his later appearances show few signs of further development. He’s still harking on the same MacGuffin, which we haven’t exactly forgotten about. So I’m not really sure what he’s doing here.

And it’s not that Anders is just bad at character re-introduction, because she does a pretty good job with several other reintroductions between sections. So I’m not sure what’s going on with him in particular. Perhaps it’s a touch of genre-bending realism.

So is All the Birds in the Sky worth recommending to the young adult reader in your life? As with so many things in life, that depends. Looking for some light entertainment? Go for it. Want a thought-provoking novel? There are better books out there. Expecting a well-developed science fantasy world? You might be disappointed.


Book Review: House of Leaves

House of Leaves is a book for readers who enjoy frame stories. By my count, there’s approximately seven layers of framing to the actual plot. Each layer carries its own story, whether implicit or explicit.

The physical book in our hands is presented as a compiled text, given to the some sort of publisher by general riffraff Johnny Truant, who obtained it from a blind man named Zampanò after the latter’s death. Zampanò’s manuscript is presented as an academic paper reviewing the literature surrounds a documentary recorded by Pulitzer-winning photographer David Navidson. The Navidson Record, as the tape is called, details the story of when Navidson and his family moved into a Virginia house that’s bigger on the inside.

That doesn’t sound so bad, you say. So why did I call it cosmic horror in my Atlas Shrugged review? Let’s get into that.

Our first indication comes from Johnny Truant’s introduction, which essentially functions as a x-page infohazard warning. Johnny believes this book destroyed his life, and seeing his story unfold across dozens of multi-page footnotes, he’s not entirely wrong. Johnny is really too intelligent for his lifestyle of alcohol, drugs, and casual sex in late-90s Los Angeles. He works in a tattoo parlor, despite having no tattoos himself. It would be easy to write him off as another nobody, but his vocabulary and insight betray this as the product of an extremely troubled upbringing.

Johnny’s mother was institutionalized when Johnny was very young, after trying to murder her only son. His father died and the next several years were spent in foster homes, often with abusive foster-parents. He ran away during his teenage years, wondered around Europe writing poetry for awhile, and somehow ended up in LA.

During late-night excapades with a genuine underachiever, Lude, led to finding Zampanò’s manuscript after the old man passed away. A collection of papers and notes, the book is hardly publishable. Intrigued, Johnny takes the pile back to his apartment and begin reading.

Slowly, he comes unhinged.

The house does not show its true self at first. It begin by creating a closet between bedrooms that were previously unconnected, piquing Navidson’s curiosity. Despite measuring again and again, it would seem that the house is ¼ inch longer on the inside than out. The mystery spirals, as more and more precise instruments wielded by professionals confirm the discrepancy.

Then a hallway appears leading off the living room, which never existed there before. At first it leads to a cold, dark, dead-end, but as time goes on, new rooms appear and change. Several professional outdoorsmen are brought to the house on Ash Tree Lane to explore this curiosity.

We learn from his footnotes that this story of unstable space is driving Johnny Truant mad. His ability to function slowly implods around him. He starts to think some sort of beast or minotaur is after him.

The exploration of Navidson’s house tears his family apart and reveals a mystery that only grows deeper—quite literally. As Zampano gives us his pseudo-academic analysis of the documentary’s contents, we learn that the house is damaging to the psyche of most occupants throughout the property’s troubled history. Navidson is special, we learn, in that he has the artistic fortitude to force himself into understanding it. He and his partner Karen are perhaps the only people to confront the house head-on. But I shouldn’t spoil everything.

As I said, this is a book about layers. The veracity of a statement, at each level, is to be questioned. Particularly those related to Johnny Truant. It’s no mistake that an extended appendix is dedicated to him. (Do read all the appendices—there’s a lot of good information in them). The Navidson Record is part of why this book fascinated me, but Johnny Truant is another part. His story is just as important—don’t overlook him. His narration is unreliable but valuable.

Plenty of others have said this, but for House of Leaves, it really pays to buy a physical copy. Contextual storytelling plays a major role in getting the plot’s emotionalism across. This includes many places where the text skips back and forth between pages or runs at unconventional angles. Sometimes it does both at once. These are artefacts of both Zampanò’s incomplete manuscript, and Danielewski’s illustration.

I’m honestly just impressed that one person was able to construct such a complicated story, coherently, and without losing the reader. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys science fictional, cosmic horror, mystery puzzle novels. Or something like that. Categorizing House of Leaves into a single genre would be a difficult task. Thankfully, we don’t have to. Just like the house, the real world is nebulous and infirm.